In 1987, as a senior at Brookfield East, Troy Wethe Burton won the WIAA state doubles title with his partner Bob Pschirrer.
His coach was his Dad, the recently passed Hall of Fame Spartan legend and as he always wanted people to remember, Eagle Scout, Burt Wethe.
But in Burton’s eyes, that was not the proudest moment he had with his father.
The last two decades were not kind to Wethe. Burton reported that his father struggled with dementia and a wide variety of other physical ailments. Burton, a husband and father of his own now, worked hard as a caregiver as his wry, thoughtful, intelligent and impassioned Dad slowly slipped away from him.
But Burton said his Dad fought hard to maintain his dignity, his pride and his memory and that led to the moments that Burton said are the most important to him.
“Every time I came into his room, his eyes would just light up,” said Burton, his voice lightly cracking with emotion.
The late Brookfield East tennis coach Burt Wethe was a great guy to work with. Generous, smart and funny. I’ll miss him a lot!
Wethe inspired much such emotion during the 46 years he was tennis coach of the East boys. He also served many years as head of the girls’ program. He was 81 when he passed on June 30. A wake was held today, July 27 and the service is on Friday, July 28 at Community United Methodist Church in Elm Grove.
A graduate of UW-La Crosse, he came to East in the early 1960s and was a social studies teacher, eventually becoming chairman of the department.
But tennis was his passion.
With an eagle eye and a prodigious memory, Wethe, in his trademark glasses and white floppy boater hat, made the Spartans a state power that often challenged and bested the then unstoppable Nicolet program headed up by the legendary Cary Bachman.
East under Wethe reached its apex from 1979-81, when it won three straight WIAA state team titles, the last two led by state singles champion Mike Krebs.
Though the Spartans never won another state title under Wethe, they remained a formidable contender, finishing second six times, the last time in 1994. East returned to the mountaintop with a state title in 2014 under Linda Lied.
For Wethe, there were still the large consolation prizes of many boys’ and girls’ conference championships, the state doubles title by Burton and Pschirrer, the 1994 state girls doubles title claimed by Jane Rosecky and Jenny Ferguson and the 1997 state boys singles crown claimed by Adam Go.
The Spartan girls were also state runner-ups in 1980 and 1991 under Wethe.
But Wethe was so much more than just a coach and collector of trophies. He was, as his remembrance card said, also a “father, friend and teacher.”
In short, he was someone who inspired great loyalty
“I grew up blocks away from Brookfield East and played many summer camps there,” wrote Go in the condolence book. “I knew Coach Wethe as a little boy and knew I’d play for the Spartans eventually. He loved tennis and teaching. I can still remember some of his tips. My favorite: ‘The adolescent effort to impress!’
“I was happy to bring some conference championships and a state championship back to East. And glad they honored him by naming the courts after him.
Thanks for your service to the game and to young kids, Coach!”
Tennis instructor Bill Kirsch recalled Wethe’s pioneering approach to developing adult and junior tennis in the Elmbrook area and his sometimes whimsical approach to practice.
“Those of us familiar with the park and rec tennis programs in the Elm Grove and Brookfield communities in the 1970s remember Burt’s tongue depressor challenge ladders,” Kirsch said. “Burt took a chance on me as the youngest instructor (at the time) that he ever hired, and I will always be grateful. Besides that, I went to Central! Burt was always a true gentleman.”
The rivalry with Central was never far from Wethe’s mind. In the hand laid-out, meticulously typewritten “Racquet Reviews” he put out before each season, he would sing the praises of the returning players, lament the losses to graduation and always, always assess the opposition carefully, especially Central.
Central’s fellow Hall of Fame coach Dave Steinbach always had the same respect for Wethe’s East squad with the pair leading their programs into many intense, fiercely fought dual meets.
“His memory was so impressive,” said Steinbach. “He always knew exactly which player was going to East and which was going to go to Central long before it happened.”
Those events occurred in the days when tennis was more community-based with less importance given to the off-season training and state rankings. It was often a family affair.
“I remember when we were all in the Braveland Conference,” said long-time Homestead coach Jackie Egelhoff. “There were a couple of years when all the coaches (including Wethe) had their own kids on their teams. It was a really fun time. I remember they took a picture of all of us and put it in the paper.”
That sense of family and loyalty was reflected in the sometimes funny, sometimes touching and often amazing display of memorabilia that accompanied the wake on July 27.
There were framed t-shirts with the profile of Wethe on display. On one were the signatures of East legends like Rick Vetter, Tim Klein, Krebs, Mike Mooren and Burton.
The other had signatures and statements of best wishes when Wethe retired many years ago. There was also a funny pastel drawing of a smiling Wethe in hat and East jacket, with a little sign nearby that said “How to play tennis in 10 easy lessons.”
There was a display of his favorite tennis-based ties (Burton was wearing another), a state proclamation honoring his many years of service to teaching and tennis with a list of all the players he coached by the decade and of course, there were many smiling pictures of his beloved, late wife Letty.
Burton said with a laugh that Mom was always an ace at making sure Dad kept his good social graces, remembering birthdays and weddings.
Burton added that the last few years were hard for Wethe and the family, but were always worth it and he will be forever grateful to his father for all he taught him about life.
So will many others.
“(He was) so dedicated, so passionate, a great mentor and educator on many things,” wrote former player Mark Skaug. “My kids and I now play tennis on the appropriately labeled ‘Wethe Courts’ at BEHS.
“It’s extra special to play on those courts and I find myself using many of Burt’s signature instructional ‘sayings’ with my own kids. Rest in peace, coach. You will never be forgotten.”